Vanessa smiled at the delivery man. He came with some regularity, and while Vanessa wasn’t allowed to have friends, Earl was the closest thing she could call to one. Vanessa had been there the day Earl dropped a package meant for the leader. Vanessa remembered the look in his eyes as he not only dropped a package in front of a customer, but one filled with grenades. Vanessa wordlessly comforted him and signed for the package. The next time he came around he had a special envelope just for her. She snuck to the fire pit out back and read it twice before destroying it and mixing it with the ashes. It had been a nice letter, short, but kind. Earl said he didn’t know quite what our compound was about, but he knew that Vanessa should be in school instead of home with these packages. He figured by the look in her eyes that she “probably doesn’t have a playmate” her own age, or “any means of finding one, and maybe he was wrong,” but it seemed like Vanessa could use a friend. He told her about a nephew he had, “round her age” that lived up in Minnesota. If she wanted to she “could drop him a line at any time, and ol’ Earl will make sure it gets there. His name’s Chuck.”
In spite of the startling noise, Vanessa kept thinking of the note as she headed back toward the house. She knew it had been wrong to accept anything from Earl, he was not part of the compound and naturally a bad person. Only good people lived in the compound and bad people lived outside of it. At least that’s what David taught them. Vanessa remembered her life before she and her mother came here. She couldn’t quite believe in David the same way her mother did, but even Vanessa knew better than to say that. Undoubtedly, the world was going to come to an end, and it would certainly be better for them to be here when it happened, rather than with the sinners. She heard a clear call for bible study amongst the shouting. Vanessa rumbled to herself, all of the comfortable spots were probably taken. Since David could preach for hours, it was better to get a good spot than be stuck standing or cramped in.
Throughout bible study Vanessa was distracted by her thoughts. Earl was wrong, there were plenty of other children here. Some of the other girls didn’t like her as much because her mother had been chosen as a wife and theirs hadn’t, but it wasn’t all bad. Vanessa wondered if Earl was some type of prophet instead of a bad person, one who knew she missed parts of her old life, mainly school. After bible study concluded, Vanessa went for a walk outside. Her mother was invited to David’s private bible study with some of the other mothers so she would have some time alone. Vanessa found a piece of paper and wrote two notes that evening. One to Earl and one to Chuck. Neither was addressed. Her note to Earl was simple, always best in Vanessa’s opinion to keep things that way. It read, “thanks for thinking of me.” The other said, “hi.”
Vanessa had been sure an eternity had passed before Earl returned. Having those two slips of paper hidden deep in her pocket, in her sock, almost anywhere she could think to hid them was like carrying burning coal in her denim. It had only been a week or so. Vanessa saw him pulling up and ran out. Terrified that her mother or any adult would see her and treat her with the helper, she slipped him the notes. Even though she was a Branch Davidian, if David saw, he might see her actions and declare her bad too. A shudder ran down her back as she grabbed the packages, and scampered off. The next time she saw Earl pulling down the road she hurried to the window. They acknowledged each other as someone else signed for the packages. Running through the door as he turned, Vanessa picked up a pen and handed it to Earl, who winked and slid a piece of paper back to her. Vanessa felt the eyes of another mother boring into her back. As slyly as she could, she placed the paper under her tongue. It sat there a lot longer than Vanessa would have liked until she had time to run off and read it. While sitting against the water tower she opened the wet note carefully. The note said, “hello stranger. I’m Chuck. My Uncle Earl says you’re a friend of mine. My dad said you shouldn’t waste a stamp for a one word letter. Write more next time, like how about your name?” Vanessa exhaled through a smile. It was the first time since coming here Vanessa had truly wanted to smile and laugh. Suppressing her laugh, she read it once more and began ripping it up to shreds like the first one. She would keep the shreds – eating pieces, throwing them in the fire pit, letting some loose if there was a breeze – getting rid of them little by little until they were all gone. She would do anything for that feeling again, even risking a meeting with the helper.
Almost a year had gone by, or so Vanessa seemed to think, since she had started writing to Chuck. Dates weren’t kept on the compound as well as they were elsewhere, when Michael – the delivery man who replaced Earl – brought her a red envelope. Vanessa gave Michael what felt like her crazy eyes. The eyes her mother said flashed over her face when someone said something Vanessa couldn’t understand. All of Chuck’s envelopes were white. Earl only wrote to her twice – once when he introduced her to Chuck and the other time when he dropped off a bible. Vanessa had just looked at him at first. Earl knew she already had a bible, it was how she’d been sneaking full letters around. But when she opened it, she found a book. A bound book replacing what should have been a Seventh Day Adventist bible. Within moments she scampered off to go read her “bible.”
Michael laughed as he watched Vanessa jitter around jamming the envelope deep in her bible. It had been a little larger than normal, but it fit well so he gave her his nod of approval. Michael shook his head on the way back to his truck. Earl had pulled him aside when he had announced his retirement and found out that he was the one taken over this route. All he had said was to be extra careful with packages for the compound and that there’s a young girl who was sort of pen pals with his nephew. While he hadn’t ever talked to the girl he knew she wasn’t supposed to be receiving mail. Earl said he always minded his own p’s and q’s, but did his best to make sure the girl didn’t get in no trouble neither. He once saw her with a bruise covering half her face. It looked like one of those bruises that gets really ugly, but doesn’t hurt too badly. Vanessa had waved it off, but still is was the second time he thought about going straight to the cops. He never mentioned the first. That was Earl. And now, apparently, Michael too. Oh boy, he thought to himself, what a way to start 1993.
From the water tower Vanessa watched Michael’s truck pull away. When she was sure no one was paying her any mind she slipped out her letter, keeping the red envelope buried in the back tucking the letter itself into the folds of her bible. It read:
Happy Valentine’s Day. I know it’s a bigger card than a regular letter, but it’s not nearly as big as the one I would have gotten for you if I coulda. Anyway, Happy Valentine’s Day to my favorite gal. Lots a hugs –
Vanessa remembered Valentine’s Day from when she was in school. It was a day when people gave their classmates chocolates and silly cards. This was special. Vanessa hoped Michael would be back soon. While she didn’t have a fancy card like Chuck’s, she did have a special gift for him. Vanessa grabbed her home sewn bag, and opened up the secret compartment adding Chuck’s card delicately to the top of the pile. A roar ran through the house, it was time for bible study.
David finished his preaching in what felt like an hour or two. He called Vanessa and her mother up, along with the rest of his wives. He talked to Vanessa about doing something special, just the two of them, tomorrow. He asked her if she would like that. She nodded and told him it would be an honor. It was the same conservation he had with one of the younger girls. The girl was about ten, four or so years younger than Vanessa. She and her family had been with David longer than Vanessa and her mother had – they had only come to the compound three or four years ago. When David had just really taken leadership of the Branch Davidian compound. Vanessa knew from overhearing their conversation that she had given a good answer and that something very important was about to happen to her. While she was unsure of it, she felt a level of honor to be chosen.
The next day her mother drove her to a motel. David was waiting for her in the parking lot. The sunlight made his glasses a funny tint, and reflected off his stubble. He closed his eyes, and raised his face up toward the light. Opening his arms a little, as if to hug the sunlight itself. Vanessa feared he would wrap his arms around her, never letting her go once she got out of the car.
Vanessa hadn’t been too far off in her assessment of the situation. Her mother pulled the car away as David lead Vanessa inside his motel room. His hand lingering on her back. He told her that she had been chosen to be his next bride. He would perform a simple ceremony to unify them and then they would physically tie their bond together. Vanessa knew enough to know that while it might be an honor for some, it wasn’t what she wanted. Vanessa waited lying on the bed naked until David had dropped his robe before she braced herself. As his body began to lean over and cover her Vanessa reached for the lamp and bashed it over David’s head. Thrusting her knee up to his hardened groin, Vanessa shot off the bed, grabbed his robe, wallet, and keys and ran outside. She knew she didn’t have much time, but she didn’t need it. The compound hadn’t been very far from the motel – only one or two turns really. Vanessa knew she would be able to get back before David could return. She just didn’t know for how long.
There was a note of despair in the air as Vanessa bundled up her favorite book, her “Bible.” She threw whatever clothes she could grab into her bag along with the money she had taken from David’s wallet. She had dreamed of meeting Chuck one day, but it had never seemed like a reality. Now, it was the only place Vanessa knew, or somewhat knew, outside of the compound. She had snuck in the house hoping that everyone was too busy with their daily chores to notice her. She hurried back to the car. She had never driven before today, and was afraid to back up. Pulling forward she turned the wheel too fast and nearly spun out. Straightening herself out, Vanessa drove down the driveway and headed in the opposite direction of the motel. Eventually she would find someone, somewhere who was able to help her.
She had only been a half mile or two down the road when she saw a trail of tan police cars with lights and the word “Sheriff” written on the back. She trembled at the thought that they were there for her. Vanessa passed several houses and pieces of property but just kept driving, terrified that maybe she had killed David or that he called and reported her as one of the bad people. Tears welled in Vanessa’s eyes, never again would she see her mother or Michael or any of the other children on the compound. She was certain she was going to Hell, and that she was on the run from David, the police, and also God.
Vanessa almost gotten in three or four accidents before finally seeing something she sort of knew: the packing place where Earl and Michael were from. It was dark out, she knew it would be closed until morning. Shutting the car off Vanessa cried herself to sleep. She woke in the morning to a loud showering of gunshots. David had familiarized everyone with the noise one day in a drill preparing for the end of days. Vanessa shuddered throughout her entire body. She was awake now, and it seemed the place was opened. She grabbed her bag and ran inside. There was no one there except an older woman. Vanessa asked her if Earl was there. The woman behind the counter said Earl had retired from the job and had moved away. Quickly, Vanessa asked for Michael – it was an emergency. The woman looked at Vanessa’s shaking hands and nodded her head. That was a better question the woman advised. She would check on the dock for him and be right back. The woman and Michael returned out front. Vanessa had barely noticed. There on the television on the local news was the compound with police and reporters out front. Michael looked at her as she looked at him.
“How do I get to Chuck,” was all she said before tears burst from her eyes, and a whimpering sound escaped her throat. Michael ran over and gave Vanessa a hung, “how do I get to Chuck before they find me,” she said fully, her voice in a whisper. Michael dropped his arms and put them on Vanessa’s shoulders, “I’m going to get you there, and ain’t nobody gonna find you less you want to be found.” Vanessa nodded her head and thanked him. Reaching in her backpack she handed Michael her favorite book, the one from Earl, the one she was going to mail to Chuck before she could get there in case anything happened to her. Michael nodded, and walked over to the woman who packaged it up and put it in the outgoing bin. She and her book were going to make their way to refuge even if they had to make the trip separately. It was her only hope.
A Note from the Author:
Submitted as, “Running from Waco” to the NYC Midnight, LLC ‘s The Short Story Challenge 2019 [H148, Historical Fiction, Pen Pal, Refugee]. While my story was written for the contest it fit with my original short story collection, “Dirty Roads in Pequak.” Despite not placing, I’m still very proud of my submission, and also very sorry for those who were affected by the events of Waco, Texas.